Jesus and Women
Jesus’ attitude to women was probably unique in His day. He talked with the outcasts of society, telling them the good news of the Kingdom of God; he ministered to women and was ministered to by women.
Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. The mere fact that he allowed women to be His disciples indicates that He valued women and did not treat them as second class citizens. She was the first person Jesus revealed Himself to after His resurrection, thus she was singled out for great honour. If Jesus thought little of women, He could easily have visited the disciples without the intervention of Mary, as He did when He appeared to them in the locked room.
The religious people of the day brought to Jesus a woman they had caught in the act of adultery. They asked Him to be her judge and jury to condemn her; instead He told them ‘let he who is without sin throw the first stone’. One by one, her accusers left the scene, convicted of his own sinfulness. Eventually Jesus looked up and saw no-one there but the woman, and said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no-one condemned you? She said, No-one, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’. Far from looking down on the woman, He forgave her sin and restored her dignity.
Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon failed to follow the usual custom of the day by arranging for someone to wash Jesus’ feet when He entered the house. This was a slight to Jesus and would have been seen as insulting. During the meal, a woman came into the house, wept so her tears fell on Jesus’ feet, wiped them away with her hair, and then poured an expensive jar of perfume on His feet. This woman was Mary from Bethany. She was known as a ‘sinner’ and Simon was amazed that Jesus let such a woman anywhere near Him: ‘If he were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner’ (Luke 7v39). Judas also criticised her for ‘wasting’ the perfume. Jesus, on the other hand, defended her and her actions and did not condemn her. While it was the practice of the religious leaders to keep away from ‘sinful women’, Jesus treated her with respect and dignity.
Mary of Bethany was sister to Martha and Lazarus. Frequently we read of Jesus going to stay at their home, where these two women fed Him and gave Him a bed for the night. Again, Jesus treated them with respect, despite Mary being a woman of ill repute. That is not to say He ignored or overlooked her sin; but He did not treat her the way the religion of the day treated her. Instead He exhibited God’s love towards her.
One final example of the way in which Jesus treated women with respect was when He spoke to the woman at the well in John 4. The woman was a Samaritan; the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and would walk past on the other side of the road, rather than be close to one. She was also a ‘sinful’ woman. The mere fact of her being out by herself fetching water in the heat of the day is an indication that she was ostracised by the rest of her society. Even the disciples ‘marvelled that He talked with a woman’ (John 4v27). The ‘rules’ of the day meant a man did not speak to a woman and certainly not a woman of ill-repute! Jesus was different. And as His followers, we are also to be different. We are to treat people with respect, courtesy and dignity; we are not to look down on anyone just because of their status, or their wealth/poverty, or condemn them for their sins and failings. After all, all Christ’s true followers are sinners saved by undeserved grace.
Paul and Women
Many think Paul was anti-women, because he upheld God’s order of things in denying women roles of leadership in the church. I do not believe this is true at all.
When writing the letter to the Romans, Paul singled out Phoebe as someone who was exemplary as a servant in the church. Whether or not she was officially a deacon, I have discussed elsewhere (http://almost-amish.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/women-bishops.html). The fact however remains, that Paul did not ignore her services to the church, or make light of them – he commended her in front of the whole congregation and to all those down the centuries since that time to the present day. Phoebe stands out as a shining example and we would not know that if Paul hadn’t mentioned her.
When Paul went to Philippi, he met the women down by the riverside, where they met for prayer. Again, he did not ignore them, but sought them out. It appears there was no synagogue in Philippi, but the women faithfully met for prayer on the Sabbath day. After he explained the gospel to them, Lydia it seems was converted. Not only was she baptised, along with other members of her household, but she extended hospitality to Paul, Silas and Timothy. After that had been released from prison, they returned to Lydia’s home and met there with the new converts. It might be that the new church had gathered there for prayer for the safe return of Paul and his companions, or maybe the church was now meeting in her house (she was a woman of some substance and quite possibly had a large home). But whatever the reason, Paul met the new disciples before moving on to another place. Lydia was instrumental in forming the church at Philippi and she is the only disciple/convert mentioned by name in that place.
Priscilla is named several times in the Bible, in Acts chapter 18 (in 3 places, verses 2, 18 and 26) and three times in the letters of Paul (Romans 16v3; 1 Corinthians 16v19; 2 Timothy 16v19). Never is she mentioned without her husband. Clearly Paul had a great regard for this married couple; he calls them ‘faithful’ and ‘fellow workers’ in Romans 16, explaining that they had risked their lives for him; and he mentions that the church was meeting in their house, in 1 Corinthians 16. By the time Paul wrote to Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla had clearly moved from Corinth to Ephesus (Timothy was the elder of the congregation at Ephesus). Paul held them in great esteem and respected them for the work they did for the Lord, both with him and on their own. We see from Acts 18v26 that they knew the gospel and that they shared that gospel with others: ‘A certain Jew named Apollos...knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue [clearly he had not yet heard that Jesus had come, died and been raised from the dead]. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately’ (Acts 18v24-26). Despite persecution, they were preaching the word wherever they went. They had already been sent away from Rome, so had lost their home, but that did not deter them. Paul shows nothing but respect for these two workers for the Lord, who had given him hospitality and shared with him in the work of the Lord.
New Testament Teaching on the Role of Women
Because most of the teaching about women and their role in the church comes to us through Paul’s letters, some have said that Paul hated women. Having seen the way in which Paul treated the various women he encountered on his journeys, it would be inconsistent to suggest he hated women and wrote his letters in order to keep them subservient. On the contrary, I believe he wrote what he did because he wanted to protect women and to ensure they were operating within God’s will in the churches.
1 Corinthians 14v33-40: Paul starts by telling his readers that God is not the author of confusion, but of peace and that this is the way of it in all the churches. It seems the Corinthian church, revelling in their new-found freedoms, were overstepping the mark and going too far. Bearing in mind God’s sense of orderliness and peace, Paul goes on to instruct the Corinthian church that the women in the church ought to be silent and submissive (as opposed to brash and loud); if they need to know something, then they should ask their husbands at home. Paul appeals to the Law (ie the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses) as evidence to support what he is saying. Now it appears the custom was that after the sermon, the men would ask each other questions and a discussion would ensue. In Corinth, the women were taking part in this discussion and so it has been said that Paul was simply limiting their involvement in this discussion. As we will see later, this is only half of what Paul is meaning (cf 1 Timothy 2). Paul concludes by saying that it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. He then issues a challenge to the Corinthian church: ‘did the word of God come originally through you? Or was it only you that it reached?’ (v.36, referring to the Corinthians being the only church to allow women to speak in the assembly) and then, ‘the things which I write are the commandments of the Lord’ (v.37), concluding with ‘let all things be done decently and in order’ (v.40). There are matters which can be determined by the local church and there are matters which cannot; in the interests of decency and good order, God has decreed that women do not participate in teaching others in the assembly.
Ephesians 5v22-24 speaks to wives in particular. They are to be submissive to their own husbands, ‘as unto the Lord’ (v.23); in the same way as they submit to God, they need to submit to their own husbands. Paul gives the reason for this: man (the husband) is head of woman (the wife) just as Christ is head of the church. Has Christ ceased to be head of the church? Well in some circles we might be forgiven for thinking that He no longer holds any sway, because the churches do as they please without reference to the Word of God at all. But Christ is still head of the church, therefore women are still to be subject to their husbands. Does this mean men can treat their wives badly and order them about? In case any of his readers might have thought that, Paul goes on to explain that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. Far from treating their wives as chattels, men were to love their wives in a self sacrificing way. Today people have forgotten this truth; men and women treat each other badly, but that is no reason to reject the Bible, just because some do not follow what it says. God has a high view of women; it is people who have failed to listen and put into practice what God has decreed. Just because some do not obey Christ as head of the church does not negate His headship. It is still His church and we are not free to do with it as we please.
1 Timothy 2v9-15 speaks of God’s plan for women and gives us the reason for it. Paul says women should adorn themselves modestly, not with costly clothing, or jewellery, or fancy hairdos. This would include modest clothing, covered heads (1 Corinthians 11) and not extravagant, for we are not to use our money for ourselves but for the good of others (sell what you have and give to the poor). Instead, women should be adorned with ‘good works’; it is these and not the way we dress which should call attention to ourselves. In Acts 9 we read of a woman who had died. Her name was Tabitha and she lived at Joppa. The local people were upset that she had died and when they heard that Peter had come to a nearby town, they sought him out, begging him to do something to help bring her back, because she was well known and well loved for ‘the good works and charitable deeds which she did’ (v.36). To prove the point, they showed Peter the tunics and garments she had made while she was with them. Clearly she was valued highly – because of her good works and charitable deeds.
Paul in writing to Timothy goes on to give the prohibition so hated by advocates of women bishops today: ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence’ (v. 11-12; note that being silent is mentioned twice in this short extract). From this, women have decided that Paul simply did not like women! But Paul goes on to give the reason for the prohibition: ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression’ (v. 13-14). Adam being formed first shows that it was always God’s intention that men should have the position of leader. In a marriage for example, you have a committee of two; if there is a disagreement, someone has to have the casting vote. God has decreed that this should be the man/husband. When Eve fell into sin, it was not because she was deceived that caused this prohibition on her, but because she sinned and part of the punishment for her sin was that her husband will rule over her – whether she likes it or not – and women have been rebelling against that ever since, which seems to me to prove the point! Maybe this is what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 14 when he said women are not to speak but to be submissive, ‘as the Law also says’ (v.34).
1 Timothy 5v9 lists the qualifications of an older woman if she is to be accepted into the list of widows by the church. It follows therefore that these qualities are those necessary for a Christian woman before she becomes a widow, as it would be impossible for her to qualify if she had not lived in this fashion. What are these qualities? She must be:
- The wife of one man (now deceased or she would not be a widow)
- Well reported for good works (like Tabitha)
- Having brought up children
- Lodged strangers
- Washed the feet of the saints (literally, as well as humbly serving others)
- Relieved the afflicted (nursed those in poor health, fed those who are hungry, clothed those who are cold – see also Matthew 25v31-46)
- Diligently followed every good work
High ideals indeed.
Younger women are to:
- Have children
- Manage the home
- Give no opportunity to the adversary (whether Satan or human adversaries) to speak reproachfully.
Older women are also mentioned in Titus 2v3-5 where another list of qualities of a Godly woman is given:
- Reverent in behaviour
- Not a slanderer (doesn’t gossip about people behind their back)
- Not given to much wine
- Teachers of good things (hmmm, interesting – she can be a teacher)
Her teaching however is limited; she is to teach younger women to:
- Love their husbands
- Love their children
- Be discreet
- Be chaste
- Be homemakers
- Be obedient to their own husbands
Why? ‘So that the word of God may not be blasphemed’ (v. 5) Failing to follow the instruction given in the Bible is blasphemy!
Finally, there is a passage about women in one of Peter’s letters, which confirms what Paul has been saying. Peter says (1 Peter 3v1-6) women are to be submissive to their own husbands, their conduct is to be chaste, and they are to be adorned not with outward show, but the ‘hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God’ (1 Peter 3v4). Even if the husband is not a believer, the wife is to submit, for when the husband observes her behaviour, the husband may be won to obey the Word of God himself. Peter’s reasoning? He appeals to the women of the Old Testament, in particular, Sarah, who obeyed her husband in all things, and he calls Christian women to be like her in doing good.
Why did Paul write these things? Well he leaves us in no doubt: ‘These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how to conduct yourself in the hose of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth’ (1 Timothy 3v14-15). Did he intend them to be simply for that day? Again, he leaves us in no doubt: ‘I urge you in the sight of God...that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, which He will manifest in His own time’ (1 Timothy 6v13-15). We are to obey the Scriptures until the coming of the Lord Jesus in all His glory. Unfortunately for those who wish to have women in positions of leadership in the church, this applies also to them.